Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is Theresa Opeka.
The Town of Spring Lake's plans to hire the fired town manager of Kenly as its town manager has hit a snag.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell said in a press release Thursday that he would not approve the funds to hire Justine Jones as the new town manager of Spring Lake over concerns for potential legal and financial liabilities.
He cited statutory authority and the Local Government Commission's (LGC) financial oversight of the town.
In a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Town of Spring Lake Board of Aldermen voted in favor of hiring Jones as its next town manager. Jones is the former Kenly town manager that was fired from the position in August.
Mayor Pro Tem Robin Chadwick, Alderwomen Sona Cooper, and Adrian Thompson voted in favor of Jones. Aldermen Raul Palacios and Marvin Lackman voted against the nomination.
"We drew from our past experiences, research, knowledge, and gut instincts to come to this decision,"
Lackman wrote on his Facebook page. "We differed on who we thought was the most qualified, but as a board, a decision was made."
Folwell told Carolina Journal in a phone interview that this is not about Jones personally but about having the most qualified personnel.
"When we're looking for a city manager, there's no room to fail,"
he said. "I just don't see how her demonstrated track record lends to the outcome that we desire. This situation, based on what we know about Spring Lake, demands the highest levels of transparency and expertise."
Jones' contract was terminated after Kenly's entire police force, including Chief Josh Gibson, and two town clerks resigned on July 20 due to what they say was a hostile work environment.
In her previous role, she sued Richland County, South Carolina, alleging that leaders and her supervisor were "hostile"
and retaliated against her for reporting bad behavior. According to the report, Jones claims in the lawsuit include that she did not get fair compensation and was treated differently due to an illness.
N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood told Theresa Opeka on Carolina Journal's "Issues & Insiders"
that she has her theory of why Jones was fired from her position as town manager of Kenly.
"Is this a case when she went to Kinley, and she tried to bring in the checks and balances, tried to make the police department and others pay the bills, do their job, their timesheets?"
she said. "Is that the reason that they all quit because they were brought in line with the proper policies and procedures? If that's the case, Spring Lake made a great hire."
Folwell said that although the LGC staff received a list of candidates from the town, none of them were approved by the staff or the commission.
Spring Lake itself is no stranger to controversy. The former finance director and accounting technician for the town pled guilty on Sept. 21 to embezzling more than $500,000 from the town between 2016 and 2021.
Gay Cameron Tucker pled guilty to one count of embezzlement from a local government receiving federal funds and one count of aggravated identity theft. Tucker faces up to 12 years in prison.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Eastern District of North Carolina, Tucker admitted that she wrote checks from the town's bank accounts for her personal use and admitted to forging the signatures of other town officials, including the mayor and town manager. These forged checks were made payable to herself, used to cover her personal expenses, and deposited into bank accounts she controlled.
"I'm deeply concerned that the half million dollars that have been embezzled will not be recovered,"
Folwell said. "One-third of it went to pay for a nursing home, and I'm deeply concerned, especially for the low- and fixed-income [people] of that community, that they deserve more competency, more transparency, and better government."
Folwell mentioned that they are still looking for the missing town vehicles that Auditor Wood cited in her report from March.
Folwell's and Wood's offices are working with N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Wayne Goodwin to get the VIN numbers of almost 35 missing town vehicles and run them through the DMV's system to find out where they are.
Folwell noted that this is the second time in 10 years that Spring Lake has been in trouble financially.
A previous 2016 audit by Wood found mismanagement of the town's finances, which included 63 Town of Spring Lake employees and three Board of Aldermen misuse of procurement cards and travel expenses for personal and unnecessary items over a five-year period.
The Local Government Commission took control of the town's finances in October 2021 after some of the financial malfeasance came to light, resulting in concerns that the town couldn't balance its annual $13 million budget. State officials found that the town permitted spending that wasn't in the general fund budget.
It was revealed that the town got a $1 million loan in October 2021 from the South River Electric Membership Corporation to build a fire station without getting LGC approval.
"We just had to renegotiate a loan on a fire station that wasn't documented,"
Follwell told Carolina Journal. "It was a five-year no-interest loan for a fire station. That's what you pay for a car, not a fire station."
Follwell said there is much tension on the city council with the split vote on the hiring of Jones, and he hopes they will reconsider their actions and think about how to move forward.
He told Carolina Journal that Spring Lake's acting town manager, Joe Durham, announced last week that he was leaving but thinks he will stay as a consultant.
"To hire a manager that's going to need coaching is not something that Spring Lake can afford,"